Sometimes it takes a foreign observer to focus a bright light on the way America fails to deal with serious national problems. In 1940, Winston Churchill warned it against relying on isolationism to protect the country against the danger of Nazi Germany's domination of Europe. A year later America was at war.
Now another British observer focuses on Washington's failure to deal effectively ith its fiscal crisis. Columnist Clive Crook, writing in the London-based Financial Times, (Nov. 14) predicts that if President Obama cannot convince Congress to accept recommendations of his bipartisan debt commission, "we can conclude that the U.S. has become ungovernable." The Bowles-Simpson commission plan, he argues, "matters not just for its merits, but even more for what it says about the government's capacity to act. The stakes are that high."
Failure of governance is more serious than so-called gridlock in Washington. It goes beyond lack of civility between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, or their failure to enact some crucial legislation such as immigration reform. Governance entails a prolonged stalemate in the political process which endangers national or domestic security. The compromise on taxes agreed to last week by Barack Obama and congressional Republicans offers some hope that a stalemate in Washington next year can be avoided.
Barack Obama appointed the bipartisan debt reduction commission early this year with a mandate to come up by December 1 with recommendations for alleviating a rowing fiscal crisis that results from trillion dollar budget deficits and a federal debt approaching $14 trillion. Made up of both Republican and Democratic members of Congress and also representatives from business and labor, the Bowles-Simpson commission issued its report on December 3. A majority of members (11 of 18) endorsed its recommendations for deep cuts in federal spending and increased taxes, including a 15 cent jump in the gasoline tax. The majority included Republican and Democratic senators, but not members of the House.
Unfortunately for those favoring the commission's approach, the ranking House Democrat, Nancy Pelosi of California, dismissed the commission's preliminary report with this statement, "Simply unacceptable!" Her opposition implies that congressional Democrats will fight the commission's recommended spending cuts and press instead for raising taxes only on rich Americans.
Pelosi's election as leader of the House Democrats, despite the party's massive election losses in November, suggests that the party's left wing will control its stance on deficit reduction when Congress convenes in January. Some conservative Republicans also oppose the commission's prescriptions, believing that only spending cuts should be used to reduce the deficit.
Two conservative Republicans on the debt commission, Senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho, overcame their skepticism last week and supported its overall approach. Crapo spoke for them both with this assessment:
"Our debt crisis is a threat not just to our way of life but to our national survival. And the threat that we face is so real and so close that we do not have further time for gridlock or inaction. it's necessary that we take strong, aggression action now." ("Two GOP senators on deficit commission get behind proposals." (Washington Post, Dec. 3)
The political reality is that little is likely to be accomplished on the commission's prescription for action unless President Obama gets behind its recommendations and persuades enough Democrats in Congress to join a bipartisan effort to pass legislation spreading the pain of contraction in government spending across all segments of American society.
Next April, the U.S. Treasury will run out of money, and Congress will be obliged to increase the national debt level. Given strong public aversion to accumulating more government debt, Congress faces a powerful political backlash if it does nothing about reducing the 2011 budget.
In Europe today, the major political question is whether the European common currency, the euro, can survive the near bankruptcy of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and perhaps Spain. The U.S. economic situation is not so dire, but the ingredients of an eventual financial disaster are all visible.
Some economists warn that unless Congress passes deep budget cuts and tax hikes during 2011 and 2012, international financial markets may conclude that America lacks the political will required to put its fiscal house in order and, as a result, demand higher interest rates on U.S. Treasury bonds. The stock markets would in that case drop precipitously, leading to another deep recession.
Does the United States suffer from a failure of governance? We will find out soon after Congress convenes in Washington next month and responds to the president's State-of-the Union address.
File last modified on Saturday, 06-SEP-2010 5:05 PM EST